Who Discovered Mars?

Mars is one of the 5 planets visible with the unaided eye. On any dark night, when Mars is in the sky, it’s easy to see with your own eyes. Ancient people knew about Mars, and long ago discovered that it moves from night to night compared to the stars. So it’s impossible to know who discovered Mars. That would have been one of the first humans.

Perhaps a better question to ask is: who realized that Mars is a planet? And that discovery happened with the idea that the Earth is a planet.

In ancient times, astronomers thought that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and the Sun, Moon, planets and stars orbited around us in a set of crystalline spheres. But the motions of the planets were hard to explain; they would sometimes speed up, stop, and even reverse their direction in the sky.

But the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus developed the view that it was the Sun that was at the center of the Solar System, and the planets orbited around it. This view neatly explained the strange motions of the planets, since the Earth was also moving around the Sun, and these quirks were really just changes in perception.

Galileo was the first person to view Mars in a telescope, and he saw not much more than a bright disk. He did take many observations over the course of the year and realized that Mars gets closer and more distant, and so larger and smaller in his telescope. As telescopes got bigger and better, astronomers were able to make out the polar ice caps on Mars, and some astronomers incorrectly thought they saw a system of canals crisscrossing the surface of the planet.

But the best views of Mars came with the first robotic exploration of Mars. The first spacecraft to arrive at Mars was NASA’s Mariner 4, launched in 1964. The first spacecraft to go into orbit around Mars was Mariner 9, in 1971. These spacecraft helped take high resolution images that revealed craters, mountains and chasms; the red landscape of Mars that we’re so familiar with today.

We’ve written many articles about the discovery of planets for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the discovery of Uranus, and another about the discovery of Neptune.

If you’d like more information on Mars, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Mars, and here’s a link to the NASA Mars Exploration home page.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about Mars. Start here, Episode 52: Mars.

NASA Mars Exploration
NASA: The Mariner Missions

When Was Mars Discovered?

This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called "Troy," where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. Credit: NASA/JPL

It is impossible to know the answer to ”when was Mars discovered”. It is bright enough to be seen in the night sky without binoculars or a telescope and has been documented for at least 4,000 years.

If you were to change the question a little to ”who first theorized that Mars was a planet”, then an answer can be found. Nicolaus Copernicus is the first astronomer to postulate that Mars and a few other bodies known at the time were planets. The heliocentric theory that he published in 1543 marked the first time that astronomers widely considered the possibility that the Sun was the center of the Solar System instead of the Earth.

While no one knows who first discovered Mars, we do know who made many of the discoveries about the planet. It is known that Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer made accurate calculations of the position of Mars as early as 1576. Johannes Kepler theorized that the orbit of Mars was elliptical in contradiction to what astronomers believed at the time. He soon expanded that theory to encompass all planets. In 1659, Christian Huygens, a Dutch astronomer drew Mars with the observations he made using a telescope he designed himself. He also discovered a strange feature on the planet that became known as Syrtis Major.

On November 28, 1964, Mariner 4 was launched successfully on an eight-month voyage to the Red Planet. It made its first flyby on July 14, 1965, collecting the first close-up photographs of another planet. The pictures showed many impact craters, some of them touched with frost in the chill Martian evening. The Mariner 4 spacecraft was able to function for about three years in solar orbit, continuing long-term studies of the solar wind environment and making coordinated measurements with Mariner 5.

There are currently six spacecraft in orbit around Mars or on its surface and several more are in the planning or design stages. Five are gathering data at an amazing rate, the other(Phoenix) is non-functioning. New discoveries like subsurface water ice and methane plumes in the atmosphere are being made on a regular basis. Scientists may not be able to give an answer to ”when was Mars discovered”, but they can offer answers to thousands of other questions and the list is growing as we speak.

We have written many articles about the study of Mars. Here an article about how methane is being produced on Mars, and the possible discovery of life on Mars.

Here are some additional articles about the early observations of Mars, and here’s a whole book about observing Mars.

We have recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast about the planet Mars. Listen to it here, Episode 52: Mars.

Source: NASA